Prometheus is Ridley Scott’s prequel to Alien. And it isn’t Ridley Scott’s prequel to Alien. This is a problem.
Prometheus is, unequivocally, a Ridley Scott production. Returning to the fantastic genre for the first time since 1985’s Legend, the filmmaker is firing on all cylinders. From its opening frames, of a humanoid alien “seeding” a world with its DNA, we’re graced with tremendous craft, provided by an A-list team that includes cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (of Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland), production designer Arthur Max (an Oscar nominee for Scott’s Gladiator and American Gangster), and editor Pietro Scalia (an Oscar winner for Scott’s Black Hawk Down). As it can be in the hands of visually gifted filmmakers, the use of 3D is no gimmick–combined with a theater-rattling sound design that descends to an eerie quiet at a moment’s notice, you’re in for a fully immersive experience that is well worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find.
If not, alas, worth listening to.
Prometheus is said to have gestated as a straightforward prequel to Alien. This was a tricky job for screenwriter Jon Spaihts; besides the burden of having The Darkest Hour as his only feature credit, he had to come up with a compelling backstory for the “space jockey,” that big, dried-out whatsit found by John Hurt and company all those films ago, and other elements of the Alien mythology that have tantalized viewers since 1979. Then Scott (perhaps smarting from reviews of Robin Hood that complained that it was a de facto prequel, one that took too long for Robin Hood to become “Robin Hood”) hired Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof to punch it up with “new elements” that would distinguish it from Alien and set course for a possible trilogy.
The bare bones of Prometheus are compelling. Following the Tree of Life-ish prologue we are in the year 2089, where star maps excavated in a Scottish cave provide more evidence for archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) that interstellar gods once landed their chariots here. Confident that the maps show their way toward “the Creator” (Shaw wears a crucifix, but that’s about as challenging as the theology is), the two are engaged to hitch a ride aboard the Prometheus, which is bound for the distant moon indicated by the maps. That the craft bears the insignia of the Weyland Corporation, the industrialists forever interested in harvesting aliens in the prior (subsequent?) films, is a sign that commerce might trump religion in the intelligent design of things, and when the Prometheus lands on Christmas Day, 2093 (yes, this is a Christmas movie, of the ho-ho horror variety), we soon learn the crew is largely agnostic toward the mission.
(Digression: While Alien and Blade Runner tend toward pessimism, Scott sure is optimistic about the future of travel. Maybe by the end of the century corporations will be conquering deep space, now that governments have tired of it…and there’s still seven years for flying, spinning cars to dot the L.A. skyline, as they do in the 2019-set Blade Runner.)
Prometheus has a game cast. Bewitching us for the second time in a week is Charlize Theron as Meredith, the mission’s coldly rational monitor. Idris Elba is the ship’s more pragmatic captain, Janek. And with a shock of blond hair Michael Fassbender is David, android and jack-of-all-trades, who styles himself after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, his favorite shipboard viewing as everyone else cryo-sleeps. Decent company for a voyage into the unknown, which Scott, 74 but not altogether resting on his laurels, is fully capable of taking us on. But because this is an Alien movie, we are guaranteed familiar answers to the questions it poses about human origins and humanity, and thus a voyage into the known. As the crew forges ahead with their survey the Alien iconography is duly checklisted in the planet’s forbiddingly adorned structures…and, yes, there are aliens, or, rather, proto-aliens, to stir the pot as personal and corporate intrigue develops. (And a humdinger of a storm sequence, with “3Debris” flying inches from your nose.)
My mom and I saw Alien the weekend it opened. This 14-year-old horror fan was aware that the movie borrowed elements from movies like the hard-driving It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Mario Bava’s atmospheric Planet of the Vampires (1965)–but its birth and body horror shocks were only beginning to be explored by filmmakers like David Cronenberg (whose The Brood, made the same year, makes an interesting double feature with its big studio cousin), and the crew of the Nostromo had an appealing blue collar resonance. I loved it, and James Cameron’s war-is-hell Aliens (1986)–that rare great sequel. But–how to put this delicately–who’s given a damn about the aliens since then? Two unloved sequels and two monster mashups later, no wonder Scott decided that enough chests had been burst.
But by tethering Prometheus to Alien, he prevents the new-ish concept from soaring. And there are other problems. While Alien had a terse economy to it, Prometheus is bogged down with subsidiary characters who are basically third-act creature fodder, and the principals gab too much (Marshall-Green, this week’s stubbled nobody, with no particular skill, and Rapace, the original dragon tattooed girl, with a cumbersome accent; Ripley she isn’t, even when given some improbable resourcefulness late in the story). And why cast a froggily made-up middle-aged performer in a key role instead of an elderly actor? Oh, and that coda–it gives us the third-dimensional jolt we’ve presumably been waiting for since 1979, except that we more-or-less got it at the finale of 2004’s Alien vs. Predator. There’s nothing left to do with these things.
This all said, I can’t say I was terribly disappointed with Prometheus. Finale cheez whiz aside it satisfied my lowered expectations, and I can shrug it off the next time I watch Alien on Blu-ray. (I had a similar reaction to the quickly staked Dark Shadows, which, too, had some good bits.) How forgiving an audience with greater hopes for prequels, trilogies, spinoffs, etc., will be I don’t know. In space, no one can hear you scream. But on Earth, no one has to show up for the second weekend.